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Helping boys become men: B.A.M.

        Inside Room 404 of Harper High School, wooden rocking chairs are arranged in a circle with black upholstered couches and chairs pushed against the walls. Rocking in the chairs, a group of freshman boys in the school uniform of maroon shirt and kaki pants fidget with the red school lanyards around their necks, tap their toes and glance at each other. Every Thursday during school, these young men are here for the program known as Becoming a Man. The program is part of Youth Guidance, a not-for-profit organization that seeks to “assists at-risk students in gaining academic, social and emotional skills needed to stay on track in school, graduate and seek further education.”
      The number of filled chairs fluctuates – usually eight to 15 boys – depending on who came to school that day or got suspended, say the program’s administrators. B.A.M counselor Dajana Naba starts the group off with “check-ins,” going around the circle for each boy to say what made him sad, mad or glad this week. During a recent session, Dajana checks in first, telling the boys he was scared the day before, when he witnessed a man shoot someone in a crowd of people waiting for a bus. Dajana often waits for the bus at that stop. A tall, slim African-American man with close shaved hair and a few gray hairs in his mustache and goatee, Dajana previously worked in psychiatry at a hospital.
          A quiet boy named Derek says simply, “Everything’s cool.”
 Dajana asks each boy a few specific questions as they check in, trying to get them to share in a little more detail and following up with them about their families or school.
“It’s not cool to (be) emotional in the school culture,” Dajana says.
Getting the boys to share takes time, but sometimes they say surprising things. Dajana says one boy named Granville is oppositional but comes every week, and recently opened up about his uncle passing away.
             The boys interrupt check-ins, pestering Dajana about going to the gym to play basketball. Dajana tries to explain they have other things to do in B.A.M. and can’t go to the gym every day. Still, they persist, hoping there will be enough time for them to play.
         The check-in is a regular part of the B.A.M curriculum, which targets male teens in need of mentoring and male role modeling, many of who struggle with issues in behavior, attitude and academic value. A unique program, it works to develop five values: integrity, accountability, self-determination, positive anger expression and visionary goal setting. Recently, Dajana’s group worked on self-determination, building focus and perseverance to get past self-defeating thoughts and other barriers to attain their goals.
         Tony DiVittorio developed B.A.M. more than 10 years ago to help boys learn to control impulses, channel anger and develop coping skills through group and one-on-one counseling. He says the program has expanded to 40 groups in 17 Chicago schools. The biggest challenge for B.A.M. now, is funding, DiVittorio says. Grants and funding runs out by the end of the year, and DiVittorio has to find more funding to keep the program running. Only one school has the funds set aside for next year, he said.
      Erik J. Olson, the athletics and activities director at Harper, says research shows special education, mentor programs and athletics all help to raise school attendance rates. At Harper, 99.7 percent of the students are black and less than half of them will graduate high school in five years, according to Chicago Public Schools’ annual scorecard. Olson says the number of students constantly changes as students move or dropout. There were over 800 students at the beginning of the school year and now there are 614, Olson says.
     “B.A.M. makes a big impact on the guys,” says Olson who recalls that a high school boy shared that his favorite memory at Harper last year was a B.A.M. youth conference.
     After check-ins, Dajana introduces breathing and mediation exercises, asking the young men to breathe in through their nose and exhale through their mouth. Then he asks them to inhale and hold the breath for 10 seconds. Most of the boys follow the instructions for the breathing exercise, although struggling to keep a straight face. While Dajana counts to 10, a few distracted boys make eye contact, giggling, smiling and letting go of the breath.
      Calmly, Dajana continues the exercises and leads them to chant, “I will not waste my brain.” After a few more breathing and positive-thought replacement exercises, he asks them if they feel any different.
   “It probably helps with patience,” says a freshman named Quintel.
Another says, “I feel like I could do anything.”
Through discussions, group exercises, field trips and one-on-one counseling, B.A.M. seeks to develop the kind of character in the boys for them to find stability and strength, even in the midst of turbulent families and violent neighborhoods.
When the bell rings for the next school period to start, the boys trickle into the wide hallway with maroon lockers along the walls. Herded along by the teachers, the boys disappear into a flow of maroon and kaki identically-clad students shuffling to their next classes.
By Shannon McFarland

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Source: National Public Radio

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